There used to be this commercial about Off bug repellent and it had this mosquito cage a guy could put his arm inside. You could see about a million mosquitoes swarm and bite the guy’s hand. Then, he sprays his arm with Off and sticks it back in. The mosquitoes just fly around, but as the tag line said: THEY DON’T BITE — THEY DON’T EVEN LITE.
When we were kids, my brother Bill (five years older than me) and I used to watch that commercial but we knew we didn’t need Off to protect us — we thought if we held our breath while a mosquito tried to bite, our skin would close up all its pores and we would be bug proof — the mosquito wouldn’t be able to get past our closed-up pores. It was like having armor. My dad told this to us and of course, we believed him. And when Bill would get a mosquito bite anyway, even after he’d been positive, absolutely sure he’d held his breath, my dad would say he must’ve taken a breath at some point. Too bad. All you have to do is just hold your breath.
After a while, Bill and I got tired of trying to hold our breath all the time — after all, we lived in Missouri and Kansas and there were lots and lots of mosquitoes in the summertime. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe dad — he seemed really serious and sincere when he told us and kept telling us and kept cheering us on to keep trying — we just got used to the fact we obviously weren’t great breath-holders and kind of got defeated about the possibility of winning in this cunning mosquito game.
Then one day, my dad extended the story to include bees. And when you think about it, that does make a sort of sense — if your pores are closed tight, forming an impenetrable barrier, like a force-field around your entire body — well, then, any insect with a stinger just was out of luck. Case closed. Bill and I nodded but we both knew how bad we already were with the mosquitoes and that just meant more Calamine lotion. But bees… if we took a breath at the wrong time with a bee to contend with, well, that just sounded like crazy talk. We both shrugged our shoulders and just steered clear of bees and that seemed to settle things.
That is, until my friend Tina Venn, who really loved my dad and believed him to the core — and who was the best at everything she ever tried in her life — took his bee theory to the test one day.
Tina, who was probably about 9, her little sister, Tammy, 8, her older sister Terri and me — we were both about 10 or 11, were playing out in the woods on a hot sunny summer day. We weren’t riding that day, although we often did ride the Shetland ponies (my favorite was Pally O’Paint); we were playing games and exploring. We had all ducked underneath a small bridge to cool off and that’s when we heard it — a big noise, kind of a rumbling hum. We ran out from underneath the bridge — smack dab into a swarm of bees! All of us went running as fast as greased lightning and screaming of course — all except Tina.
I remember looking over my shoulder and there she was, as stiff as a statue. She had stopped in mid-run and stood there as if she had been tagged in a game of freeze-tag. I knew she was holding her breath.
We all ran back to the house and waited, wheezing and catching our breath — and wondering if Tina would show those bees who was boss. A few minutes later, though, Tina came up the drive and she was crying.
But they weren’t hurt tears — they were tears of fury.
“Ken!” she called out to my dad, who had come out on the front porch and was listening to our tale as we each took turns telling it. “Ken — you lied to me! I held my breath and stood still and those bees stung me anyway!”
“But Tina,” my dad said, “they were waiting — and they must have stung you when you took a breath. You’ll just have to practice and try again next time.”
I don’t think Tina did ever try that again — and neither did any of us. Bill once told me that he bet my dad never tried it either.
When I grew up and one day asked my dad about the mosquito/bee story, and challenged him about it being true, he just smiled and said, “You do have to hold your breath a long time — or it won’t work.”
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